In her new novel, Matasha, Pamela Erens, the acclaimed author of Eleven Hours, The Virgins, and The Understory, writes for children for the first time.
Matasha earned a Kirkus starred review and this rave review from Meg Wolitzer in the New York Times …“the many pleasures of this novel include its empathy and poker-faced wit, and the charms of its main character.”
Dead Darlings is pleased to bring you Pamela Erens.
I’ve read and enjoyed your previous novels very much, particularly Eleven Hours and its depiction of childbirth. I’m curious as to why you decided to write a book for children. What was the journey like?
At the time, I was in between books, and National Novel Writing Month was coming up. I saw NaNoWriMo as a really great challenge. I tend to write slowly and self-edit a lot, so I wanted to see if I could write 50,000 words in a month. I didn’t have a lot of investment in the outcome, so I took on something entirely new. After I finished, I put the manuscript aside for a while. When I read it again, I thought it was terrible. It sat in my file cabinet for about ten years. One day, I was talking to a writer friend who mentioned starting NaNoWriMo, and it reminded me of my own attempt. I took it out and reread it. While it needed work, I found some genuine freshness and pleasure in it. It still needed an ending. I spent a couple of months fixing it up, then sent it out to a couple of trusted readers.
Were you reading children’s books along the way?
I wasn’t, and there wasn’t time to do that. There was some sound I was chasing, and I didn’t want other books to influence me.
My daughter, who is nine, was reading the book along with me, and she told me she thought the mother character was lonely. I found that interesting, as I saw her in a more off-putting light, as more unlikeable. How do you describe your portrayal of the mother?
It’s interesting your daughter saw the loneliness there; that’s very empathetic. I didn’t consciously think of depicting the mother as either lonely or off-putting. While I’m drafting, I’m in a less self-conscious state, and the specificity comes when I go back and revise. In any case, nothing would be interesting in fiction if people didn’t do unlikeable things. Characters can do unlikeable things, they can do cruel things. Everybody is a mix of motivations, and we all do kind and loving things, and also commit unlikeable acts. I don’t see why fiction shouldn’t reflect that. It’s a rare character in a good book who’s completely unlikeable. Perhaps, in Matasha, a few of the classmates are. Still, we’re seeing them from a child’s perspective, so it’s not going to be really nuanced. As an adult, she’d probably see more sides.
As this book takes place in the 1970s. Did you think about its relevancy to contemporary children?
I didn’t consciously think about making it relevant to contemporary kids. I was a kid in the 70s, and I didn’t think I would be successful writing from the eyes of a kid now. For an eleven-year-old today, social media and pop culture references play such a big part. I felt as if it would be a strain to understand that. Whereas the memories of my own elementary-school years were accessible to me. Still, people’s emotional lives don’t change from generation to generation, if at all. If I did a good job, I thought, a kid today could relate. Kids today read Little Women, for example. It’s all about getting the human life and emotions into the book.
Is this story based on real life? Were you like Matasha as a kid?
Definitely, there is some of me in her—the bookishness, the earnestness. The situations were completely invented. Because I was drafting so quickly, I kept having to throw in drama to keep generating words! There is a lot of drama—the boy who disappears, for example, and the mother leaving. I worried that it was going to come off as unrealistic and melodramatic, but drama is all in how you work it. I have a tendency to be afraid of plot, and so NaNoWriMo was a helpful exercise to get beyond that.
I was surprised at some of the revelations toward the end, as they felt very “adult.” Were you ever worried they would feel too “old” for the book?
I did have a bit of concern about that material. I removed a couple of sentences that I thought were too much. Still, kids are very aware of divorce and parents having other girlfriends and boyfriends.
What was the hardest part of writing a book for children?
I hadn’t written a children’s book before, and I didn’t know if anyone was going to think it was any good. In revision, I did a lot of thinking and sorting things out, wondering if it was too dense or introspective. Still, it was a very fun project, and it really allowed me to stretch myself.
What else have you been working on? What’s next for you?
I have a book coming out, very different, on Middlemarch, for Ig Publishing’s Bookmark series. It’s a hybrid memoir/literary appreciation, in which I describe what that book has meant to me at various stages in my life and why.
Pamela Erens is the author of three novels for adults—Eleven Hours, The Virgins, and The Understory, which were named finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, and the John Gardner Fiction Book Award